Tutored Life Drawing Blog 01: Introduction to Life Drawing

Welcome to the first of our Draw online tutored life drawing course blogs. This blog is free and publicly available, so feel free to share it with anybody who might be keen to read it. All other blogs in the series are available to our Patreon supporters on all tiers. They are suitable for all abilities and are intended to help you develop your life drawing skills through practical exercises, demonstrations and artists' examples. In this introductory lesson, we'll look at some approaches to get started with drawing the figure, focusing on techniques that help you to make clearer observation and more confident marks. You can find more details about the courses on the Navigator HERE

(Main image: 'Frankie' by Lancelot Richardson)


Conventions: What to expect in a life drawing class

Whether they are online or in-person, life drawing classes vary in structure - most will explain this in their listings or advertisements. Although life drawing traditionally involves working from an unclothed model, online classes might feature nude or clothed figure, and some sessions will have a specific theme or studio set up. At Draw, we always announce the pose times at the start of the class and before each pose, which will fall into these categories:

  • Short poses, which can range from 10 seconds to 15 minutes
  • Medium poses, which can vary from 15-45 minutes minutes
  • Long pose, which exceed 45 minutes and might carry on over several sessions

Most online classes are comprised of poses between a couple of minutes to about thirty or forty, but a few classes do offer longer poses; online and in-person classes that last over an hour, tend to have a short intermission in the middle to allow both model and attendees to have a break. If you can't get access to a life class, don't worry! We have lots off reference photos here on the Patreon for you to draw from. If you mostly draw from photographs make sure that you accompany those drawings with real-life subject, even if it means drawing objects, spaces or yourself - that will be important for becoming used to working from a three dimensional subject. Lets take a look at a new key ideas in life drawing...

Observing the Figure: Introducing Contour

Contours are physical horizon lines that can sit inside or outside of the body - we can use a line to represent the edges of these contours, but it is important to notice that those lines don't really exist in nature - we see an edge, like the contour around the outside of the body, and we use a line to stand in for it. Lines are shorthand way of describing something through drawing, that we can all understand.

An outline is a contour that acts as a container for the subject, going around it and enclosing it, a boundary between the model from its background. The contours within the body represent the edges of limbs, overlapping body parts and creases in skin - although light will reveals the contours more clearly, they exist independent of how they are lit. 

('Esme' This sketch is only made of contours, with there being no prior drawing beneath. Note that these lines don't form a closed shape, but they do overlap each other)

When you draw, it is a good idea to be looking at the subject at least half the time, especially when you are working on the contour. We will be looking at contour in more detail next week, as it is a key feature of observational drawing.

Containing the Figure - Placement and Proportion

Running out of space on the page, or drawing the figure too small is a common problem in life drawing - t can happen to anyone who takes their eyes off the ball!

('Christy' , dashed bounding marks help control the size of these quick figure sketches on this page)

The first tactic to prevent this is to create a boundary for the figure. If you need to work quickly, try starting with little marks to indicate the top and bottom is the figure's position on the page. It is a good idea to allow a bit of extra space just in case you go over.

If you have more time, you can create a boundary on how wide the figure is relative to the height it takes up. An easy way to measure the width of the pose relative to the height is to hold your pencil out at arm's length, lining up the tip of the pencil with the top-most edge of the figure. Then reposition your thumb until it lines up with the bottom-most edge of the figure. Keeping your arm fully extended, rotate the pencil horizontally and compare how wide the figure is to the distance between the thumb, and the tip of the pencil.

(Measuring the relative height of the figure with a pencil)

If the pose is wider than it is tall, consider rotating the paper to a landscape orientation. Once you have placed the figure and established its rough proportions, you can start building up the drawing. There are a lot of different approaches to this! One approached is to start light, with a general idea of whole figure.

('Laura' This step by step shows the initial bounding markers, followed by a rough sketch of the figure – big shapes only. As I develop the contour in the third step, I'm finding the initial proportions are a little off, and allow the hands to extend out of the box)

From here you might want to use the above ideas about contour to develop a more accurate line drawing. Generally it is a good idea to do multiple 'passes' over the whole figure, each time adding to it and pushing towards the finished result you want. 

Contour and Containment in Artwork

We can look at how different artists have explored ideas of contour and placement in their work. Contour plays an important role in this monotype by Degas. The contour lines of the figure are quite chunky in places, effectively separating her from the wall and making those forms come forward. To create a sense of depth, the contour of the cushioning in the foreground overlaps the towel, which overlaps the figure, which overlaps the wall texture. 

(Degas – 'Nude Woman Drying Herself' (Source: SMK Open) )

In this example by Rembrandt, the figure is supported by the background, creating a more interesting composition. Including some background elements, no matter how simple, is a handy way of comparing the portions of the figure to something else. This image is a print etching, created on a metal plate, so there is little correcting of mistakes! A container need not be the same size as the figure – it can extend to include a setting, or shrink to crop the model.

(Rembrandt - 'Study from the nude man seated before a curtain' (Source: SMK Open) )

Key ideas to remember:

  • Lines drawings can show edges, imply volume through contour. 
  • Placement is the position of the figure on the page - an important consideration early in the drawing.
  • Proportion is the relative size of one aspect of the figure to another – such as the height versus the width of the space they take up.

Over to You: Contour & Placement

Recommended Materials: These exercises work well in most drawing materials – pencils, pens or charcoal are all good. If you are new to drawing, a good starting place is a 2B or 4B pencil, an eraser, and lots of drawing paper. 

Exercise 1: Continuous Line Drawing

For this exercise, you are to focus on following the contours of the figure, all in one continuous line. No taking your pen or pencil off the page! For the majority of the time, you should be looking at the figure, and only occasionally glancing down to check your drawing.

(Continuous line drawings of Catherine. These drawings were each made in a single line. If you hit a dead end, skip across the drawing to another point – but always keep the tip of the pen or pencil on the paper!)

Exercise 2: Contained Figure Drawing

To start, mark out the top and bottom boundaries of where you would like to place your drawing. Using your pen or pencil, measure out the height of the figure and compare it to the width. With these measurements, draw a box – don't worry about rulers, it needn't be perfect! Within the box, draw the figure, starting light and building up detail. 

(Laura, drawn using a bounding box to control proportion)

Exercise 3: Still Life Practise

Whilst the above exercises are effective for figures shown on a screen, it is a good idea to practise drawing from life as well. Still life subjects are always convenient! Pick some interesting objects, and try both of the above exercises with them. 

(Continuous line drawing of a cauliflower)


Further links

>> Watch the video that corresponds to this blog HERE
>> Put the exercises into practice using this free photoset HERE
>> Watch Week 02: Contour HERE

We would love to see your work! If you want to share your drawings with us, please head on over to the Draw Community Board Facebook group, or tag us with @draw_brighton and  #drawbrighton on Instagram and Twitter.

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